What Does A Publisher Do? Part 3

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Here is the third installment of what a publisher does. Since I launched Dobyns Chronicles in May marketing has been where I have spent the majority of my time. At times it feels like a daunting task but it is a necessary one if you want you book to be seen by anyone beside your immediate family.

Adventures in Marketing
publisher
Editors like to think that editorial is the brain that drives the publishing house, which is true as far as it goes. Marketing, then, is the muscle that moves the ideas. It’s got to be smart muscle, too. Marketing departments may include two large spheres of responsibility—promotion (sometimes also called marketing) and sales. In some houses, sales is split off into a separate department. Broadly speaking, marketing will embrace promotion, publicity, advertising, sales to chains, sales to individuals, book clubs, subsidiary rights, and translations—all the ways in which a publisher brings your book to its readers and brings in cash. If you’re publishing with a small house, you may have the luxury of calling one person who is responsible for all these marketing activities. At larger houses, however, you may need to bond with several different staff members. This is a thumbnail sketch of what they do.

In publishing parlance, advertising is the placement of expensive print ads in newspapers and magazines. There’s little agreement among publishers about what advertising does, other than make the author and the author’s agent feel better, and demonstrate that the house is capable of spending money on ads. Advertising promotes the author’s book and the publishing house itself.

Many people in scholarly publishing doubt that advertising sells books, or that it sells them in as cost-effective way as direct mail or by having the author lecture widely—and compellingly—on the subject of his latest book. It is not uncommon for scholarly publishers to devote less of their marketing resources to print advertising than they might have even a decade ago. Nevertheless, almost all scholarly houses still buy advertising space in journals and conference programs, if less frequently in magazines, and more rarely still in newspapers. Every author thinks his book should be advertised in the New York Times Book Review. Every publisher crosses her fingers hoping the Times will review the book, thereby promoting it more effectively and more cheaply than an ad could hope to. Hardly any scholarly book can generate enough income to justify the expense of an ad in the Times Book Review, where a full-page ad costs as much as a very nice car. What has changed most significantly in the past decade is the proliferation of electronic marketing opportunities. Open your Gmail account and you may find that a scholarly publisher has sent you an e-blast, basically an advertising page sent by e-mail chick-full of scholarly book news.

Frequently confused with advertising, publicity is the “Hear ye! Hear ye!” department of a publishing house. Publicity departments work with radio and TV, and get review copies and press releases out to the media. Publicity departments are also responsible for parties and tours, though in most scholarly publishing houses all but the most modest parties are reserved for the biggest books of the house’s season. So, too, are tours. Sometimes publicity departments will be able to work with an author to support an event, for example, arranging for a local bookstore to sell copies of the author’s latest when she is giving a guest lecture on campus. But big publicity—getting an author on Oprah, for example—is difficult work, and despite the widespread belief to the contrary, a scholar’s appearance on a major talk show doesn’t translate into overnight success for the author’s entire oeuvre. Television book talk has become yet one more endangered species.

Depending on the book, a publisher may put very little effort into publicity. There’s little that can be done to interest the media in, say, a work of descriptive linguistics. On the other hand, most scholarly publishers bend over backward to find something tasty in the most erudite tome, and with an author of appealing grace, it just might be possible to get a reporter or scout interested in your book on the War of the Spanish Succession.

Like advertising, publicity is an expense that a publisher will undertake for two reasons: to sell the book, and to sell the house. The publisher will certainly want to move copies of your book on bias in educational testing, but if your book is particularly important to the house, advertising and publicity for your book will be an investment through which the publisher can show that it is interested in educational issues, or that it is capable of promoting timely books vigorously.

Publishers often set a limit of some percentage of a book’s total anticipated earnings as the amount of money that can be spent on advertising and on publicity. These figures are, however, in one sense entirely fictitious, as the publisher is obligated to spend the specified percentage before the books are even sold. For example, if your book, fresh off the presses, is expected to sell enough copies to bring in $100,000, and your publisher is willing to invest 15 percent of that income in marketing, the book would then have an allocation of $15,000. This sum, however, will be spent early on in the book’s life: advance page proof, fliers or brochures, advertising space (often reserved months before the journal or magazine goes to press). If your book sells only half the expected amount, your publisher will have spent most of the $15,000 marketing allocation. It can’t be done bit by bit.

This gamble is one of the things that make trade publishing risky. In trade, every book is aimed at the general reader, and so every book should, at least in theory, repay publicity efforts by the publisher. Each pop star biography, each thriller, each diet book or memoir should be strong enough for a lecture tour, bookstore appearances, and photos in the glossies.

Scholarly publishing is a lower-yield industry, but it’s also lower risk. In scholarly publishing, the author is writing for a much smaller but more targeted community. Less money is made available for marketing, even if percentages may not be so different from trade. If your scholarly book is expected to generate sales of $25,000 rather than $100,000, and if the percentage allocations remain the same at both houses, your marketing budget would be $3,750. This sum might be enough for a couple of ads (though not in the New York Times), or for several other less visible pieces of promotion. But your publisher is likely to rely on a more complex mix of promotional initiatives: conference displays, targeted fliers to members of your professional association, scholarly advertising, a solus ad (an ad featuring your book all by itself) in a less expensive and less general publication (the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, or the Nation, for example), and increasingly a welter of electronic marketing strategies.

Publicity is only partly the result of what your publisher spends and where. Who you are counts. A well-known novelist brings to publication her fame and achievement, a first-time novelist only the enthusiasm of her supporters and her publisher. A scholarly author has something else: she has a field. Whether you are a first-time author in sociology or a senior scholar in the discipline, as a member of the academy you are writing within a defined arena, and that will make it possible for your publisher to promote your work.

In other words, the parts of a scholarly author’s network—colleagues, institution, and discipline—are key elements in the promotion of the book. It is fair to say that in the world of academic publishing an independent scholar, or anyone writing serious nonfiction outside the university, may in at least this regard be at a disadvantage.

Marketing departments issue all kinds of catalogues to promote books—ones you see and ones you won’t unless you’re a librarian or a bookseller. The trade catalogue is a publisher’s principal tool for making sales to bookstores. Like countries that have only two seasons, wet and dry, most of scholarly publishing divides its year in half. (Some larger houses now issue three catalogues; their weather is more complicated.) Publishers with two trade catalogues bring out one per season. The fall season usually begins in September and continues through the winter. The spring season begins in February or March, and continues through the summer. Books to be announced in a catalogue must be securely in place at the publishing house up to a year ahead. The book you hope to have published in September will be announced in a catalogue printed the previous spring; the copy for your book will be written during the winter. It isn’t uncommon for a house to expect the manuscript to be delivered and through its review and revision process a year prior to publication date. Certain kinds of books can’t be well published in certain months. Scholarly publishers avoid launching serious trade books in December, since the outstanding study of world famine won’t compete with holiday fare (unsold copies will be returned to the publisher before the tinsel is swept away). It’s most desirable to stock textbooks by January or February, since teachers will need to see examination copies in the spring to order texts for fall classes.

Have a blog? Share the news with your devotees. To marketing and publicity also falls the task of arranging author tours. If an author tour conjures up images of red carpets, limousines, and chilled champagne, think again. A scholarly author on tour may be staying in friends’ guest rooms, speaking in near-empty bookstores, and certainly wondering if there aren’t easier ways of selling books. And yet most authors are delighted by the request to make appearances. After all, it means that the publisher thinks this is a book that can reach beyond a core readership.

An author tour can take various forms. Two weeks of travel, flights from city to city, an author appearance every day, twice a day if possible. The phone-in radio show in the morning, the mall bookstore in the afternoon, the campus speaking engagement just before dinner, a quick stop to sign a pile of copies at the campus bookstore, where your book has the prime window display. All this takes the author’s time, and can cost the publisher a tidy sum. At the other end of the scale, the tour might be rather less elaborate. (Do you know anyone in Chicago who could put you up? Do you mind driving there?) If you are publishing a book with a very small house, there may simply not be a budget for any sort of touring. Many scholars overcome the limitations of their publishers’ budgets by using their own speaking engagements as book promotion opportunities. If you’re going to give a lecture anyway, contact your publisher well in advance to see if a book event might be scheduled around it.
The cheapest way to promote a book is to have the author pitch it to a willing audience. Lecturing at the community center on images of aging in Western art? Your publisher can easily run off a simple promotional flier with order form attached, ship you a stack of them, and have you place them strategically at your lecture venue. Medium-size and larger academic houses will usually select one or more authors in a season for special promotion. Publishers often make their choice on the basis of three factors:

the book can sell in quantity in bookstores;
the book can be reviewed in newspapers, not simply journals;
the author is presentable.
Some books can be successful without ever selling a single copy in a bookstore. These are textbooks—if you’ve written one, don’t expect to tour. Your publisher will send you on tour only if bookstores think you’ll draw a crowd. If bookstores are behind you, chances are your book has enough appeal to garner reviews in the media.

“Will I be getting a party?” asks an author breathlessly, having just turned in his overdue manuscript on the history of childhood illnesses. Publishers throw parties reluctantly. Parties make authors feel good—to which your publisher won’t object—but the publishing business is primarily about getting books sold. Unless you can deliver the movers and shakers of the media, or of your academic discipline, your publisher’s marketing budget is better spent on advertising and direct mail than on renting a restaurant for catered snacks and dancing. Of course, it might be nice to have a little do for your close friends on campus. Think warm white wine in plastic cups in the faculty lounge. Next question.

Your publisher may budget anywhere from fifty to several hundred “free and review” copies of your book. These are copies on which you will receive no royalties because they’ll be given away or used in promotion.

Books are given away to people who may review the book or in other ways do the book some good. A publisher with a book hot off the presses will want to get it as quickly as possible into the hands of the most powerful people in the field. The publisher who has just brought out a book on the ethical treatment of animals may want Peter Singer, for example, to have a copy as early as possible, in the hopes that Professor Singer will (a) like the book and spread the word; and (b) respond eagerly if a book review editor contacts him about reviewing it.

It’s important to remember that book reviews are assigned by book review editors (at newspapers, at magazines, at journals). Since almost anyone could plausibly be a book reviewer, publishers have become hard-nosed about sending out review copies to unknown persons. Your publisher will have an A-list of preferred review sites, and will automatically get copies of your book to the people at these publications and organizations. If your best friend Louise wants to review the book but isn’t a book reviewer, don’t be insulted if your publisher won’t send her a free copy. Louise should try contacting a journal where she might review the book. Chances are your publisher has already put that journal on the A-list and a copy of your book is waiting, alongside hundreds of others, in the office of the journal’s book review editor. If not, have that journal send your publisher a request—on letterhead

Remember that promotional copies are not about promoting you. Or about your promotion at State U. Don’t expect your publisher to send a copy of your book to your dean or to Betty who typed the manuscript. These are your responsibilities. Your contract will stipulate a number of copies given to you at no cost. Beyond that, you’ll be expected to pay for further copies of your own book. (But at least you’ll get an author’s discount.)

Take a look at my new YouTube video and let me know what you think about it. Have a blessed day.

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